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Honolulu Holiday

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Hawaiian dancer greets diners at a dinner cruise in Honolulu. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Should I get a foot massage and then go shooting, or vice versa?

This was the toughest choice I faced in Honolulu as I explored the palm-fringed, glass-plated, concrete commercial jungle that is Waikiki. As an American, I felt at home amid the man-made shopping mall habitat; as a mainlander, I was starstruck by the spectrum of “fun” available and on sale: dinner cruises, surfing safaris, make-your-own leis, magic shows, fire shows . . . fiery magic shows, and again with the shooting. After passing another block of sandwich-boarded pistol-mongers, I woke up from my shopping mall stupor: Anyone who spends his days in Hawaii at an indoor shooting range is a numskull.

I chose instead to spend my first morning in Honolulu learning to surf. In the past few years I have been to Sydney’s Bondi and to the great surfing beaches of Cape Town and Durban, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and California. Yet somehow I remained a surfing virgin until I set foot in Hawaii. After a lifetime of not surfing, I am immensely grateful that my first time standing on a surfboard was in Honolulu, racing goofy-footed across the green-blue water towardsthe high-rise shores of Waikiki.

According to the always-true-and-factual Wikipedia, Honolulu boasts more than 470 high-rises, making it the fourth tallest city in America (after New York, Chicago and Los Angeles). Honolulu is also home to about one million humans, making it the largest state capital in proportion to the state’s population (nearly 75 percent of Hawaii resides in or near Honolulu).

It is a big, big city that happens to be built on a pretty spectacular beach, Waikiki. It is also an odd little big city that is a state capital that was once a royal capital of an independent kingdom and now a major international metropolis in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Every morning I went running in Honolulu, sprinting along the Ala Wai Canal, then jaywalking through the commuter madness on Kalakaua Avenue, running back along the beach in the early morning, just as Filipino pool boys began sweeping the poolside patios of high-rise hotels and folding fluffy striped towels for tourists who were still asleep upstairs. I passed the homeless hippies on the sidewalk and traded “hang loose” hand signs with the tightrope walkers in Kapiolani Park.

I ended each morning run with a swim, or rather, a very motionless float, in the sapphire shallows of Waikiki. The water was cool and clean, and it felt marvelous. Lying in the water, staring at the palm trees and the city beyond, I could actually take time to try and connect the dots of this strange and tropical urbanity.

Waikiki is a little bit Venice Beach, a little bit of Roppongi, some Vegas and Bangkok thrown in, along with a shot of Miami and midtown Manhattan, all blended together like a big, fat frozen umbrella drink.

“Yes, that’s it!” I finally realized one morning, stepping out of the water and feeling the sea wash off my body — Honolulu is the bright and cheery, yet slightly artificial maraschino cherry atop the dare-you-drink-it cocktail of Hawaii. This is as much thinking as I did during my week in Waikiki.

All the way back to my hotel, I reflected on the the strange blend that is Hawaii and especially Honolulu, a strangeness highlighted in Waikiki among the throng of Japanese and Chinese tourists and badly tattooed mainlanders all frantic to fulfill their Hawaii vacation expectations every minute of every hour, yet in the end, spent several of those hours in line at one of the many pork-heavy buffets on offer.

Upon arriving in Honolulu, my friend and ukulele-strumming Hawaii expert Pam Mandel (@NerdsEyeView) wrote me an open letter/blog post packed with amazing travel tips on How to Fall in Love With Waikiki, recommending above all that I “embrace all the tourist stuff.”

Unlike Wikipedia, Pam is always right and so I followed her advice, especially the part about slowing WAY down. This is yet another delightful contradiction of Honolulu (which might be the fastest place in Polynesia and the slowest place in America). I did slow down, and I embraced the tourist festivities with gusto, tiki torches and all.

For all the criticism aimed at tourists, I always love the few chances I have to just be a tourist. I wore the badge proudly in Waikiki, walking up and down Kuhio Avenue with flip-flops flopping from my sunburned feet, sporting my $20, Made-In-China “Aloha” shirt, my haole-white face squinting behind sunglasses, considering the handwoven palm-frond hats for sale on the sidewalk, and all the while popping chocolate-covered macadamia nuts into my mouth.

Dressed up as my best tourist persona, I was a walking target not only for the guys who wanted me to pay them for the privilege of shooting pistols at an underground target, but for everything else that gets thrown at the nearly 4.5 million (!) tourists who visit Oahu every year. And I did it all (except the shooting): the surf lessons, the magic show, lunch at Duke’s, and the Alii Kai dinner cruise, where I danced in a grass skirt on a boat festooned with silk pineapples and disco lights.

Had I simply traveled to Honolulu dreaming of some lone beach with an echoing surf and free of the noise of fellow humans, then perhaps I would be disappointed. Instead, I embraced all the tourist stuff, and I had a blast. For the span of my traveling lifetime, I have listened to tight-lipped travel fascists proclaim that neither Honolulu nor Waikiki is “the real Hawaii” but, until the real Hawaii stands up, I am quite content with the real Honolulu and the real Waikiki whose disproportional reality is a tourist-to-citizen ratio of four to one.

Like Kamehameha’s kingdom, my Honolulu adventure was brief, fun, and perhaps a little historic in that I tried new things like surfing and dancing and singing in public. It all culminated in a tiny underground bar the size of my bathroom at home (Wang Chung’s Karaoke Bar) where I entertained fellow tourists with my very own hoarse rendition of “Sit Down” by British band James:

I believe this wave will bear my weight, so let it flow.

This is a good song for Hawaii, I thought, my voice cracking in front of  these strangers who all represented various pan-Pacific nations. At the end of my song, they all clapped politely, the spirit of aloha extending even to my bad karaoke.

As the next rock star took the mic, I retreated into the dark corner of Wang Chung’s with my half-melted Shirley Temple, stirring my drink, glad to be in a funky underground bar instead of an underground pistol range. My mind cast a mental map of the vast Pacific Ocean and Hawaii in the middle–and then little microscopic me inside a microscopic bar near the beach on the edge of it all.

There is still a lot of Hawaii for me to discover, and Honolulu is only the beginning of what I hope to be a long and healthy relationship with this happy archipelago. I could have raised my drink to that hope, but instead, in the dimness of the karaoke bar, with my thumb and forefinger, I reached down into the sloshing ice and fished out a maraschino cherry, then plopped the plastic fruit into my mouth.

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